Jeff Koons Transforms Luxury Handbags into New Works for Charity

Newly founded by collector Svetlana Kuzmicheva-Uspenskaya, Project Perpetual is a charity geared towards bringing together artists and other cultural influencers to create unique projects in order to raise awareness and funds for causes promoted by the United Nations Foundation. In its first year, Project Perpetual has joined forces with Jeff Koons to benefit the foundation’s Shot@Life, which provides life-saving vaccines for children in developing countries. Koons has been commissioned to create several new works for the upcoming auction, with a twist—each work will incorporate a designer handbag, contributed by various prominent figures, including Sofia Coppola, Marc Jacobs, Diane von Furstenberg, and Princess Caroline of Hanover. Project Perpetual’s advocacy campaign also features notable figures, from fashion icons Kate Moss and Victoria Beckham to artists Daniel Arsham and Rachel Feinstein

The live auction, which will be led by auctioneer and art world celebrity Simon de Pury, will feature multiple lots created by Koons exclusively for the occasion. For his main piece, Gazing Ball (Charity), Koons took inspiration from Picasso’s blue-period work La Soupe (ca. 1902), reinterpreting the painting as one of his iconic gazing ball statues, rendering the figures in white plaster and placing the familiar blue glass ball at their feet; two donated Birkin bags are slipped over the woman’s arm as she offers a child a steaming bowl of soup, a fitting image of charity. (Koons comments on his homage to Picasso in the video interview seen here.) The statue will be installed at the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York through Monday. Eight additional bags have been transformed into individual artworks, placed in mirrored environments à la Koons’ Sponge Shelf, seen at the Whitney this past summer.

Kuzmicheva-Uspenskaya recently spoke with Artsy about the origins of Project Perpetual and its mission, and what to expect from the Jeff Koons creations. 

Artsy: You founded Project Perpetual as an initiative to combine the “perpetual” forces of creatives and global influencers alike, in an effort to raise awareness around and combat different issues worldwide. Could you speak a bit about what inspired this charity and its unique process of placing precious possessions in the hands of artists to transform into a new work?

Svetlana Kuzmicheva-Uspenskaya: It was inspired by my belief that the only power that is capable of transformation ([whether] an idea, a belief, or something’s nature) is creativity. I thought that people who are able to influence others, like celebrities, should have this power as much as an artist does. Combining both might bring up new creative ideas and end up with an artwork that will inspire the others. The mission of this project is to activate through art—I believe the people who took part in this project were emotionally moved to do so, thus sharing their power with the artist. This makes the soul of the artwork, creates its story referencing the attitudes of many others, and brings power to the idea it reflects. For example, money [alone] would never be able to create context for the artwork, were one simply commissioned [to create something] for the charity. Ideas do not have the same boundaries.

Artsy: What influenced your choice of Jeff Koons for this particular project? What was the process of securing his partnership?

SKU: I thought that transforming this luxury icon into a new creative statement was a challenge that Jeff would be interested in. What makes an object symbolic? The bag is just a bag until we empower it with different meanings. The only way to secure his partnership was his inspiration about this idea. He is a great artist. There is no other way it would work.

Artsy: The Birkin bag is one of the most coveted fashion objects in the world, handcrafted in small quantities, much like an artwork itself. Jeff Koons’s creations for Project Perpetual, taking the bag as a ready-made and placing it in an entirely new context, will instill in it new meaning. What was the inspiration behind the combination of these two? What sort of new emotions do you expect the works to evoke—taking into consideration Koons’ own handiwork joined with the handbags, which were in fact donated from individuals’ personal closets, including your own?

SKU: I don't see that this is about the bag; I also don't think that the Birkin bag is the artwork itself. Art is about ideas and skills—the rest is the craftsmanship. The [spirit] of these artworks is in the story of their creation. They were iconic bags that have been transformed into artworks through the creative will and imagination of a great artist. You look at it and might think that's easy, [but] then imagine the story behind and [realize] it is not. But that is [just] the sort of emotion it evokes in me; I can't speak for the others. I hope it will provoke  and question—that is what art does so brilliantly like nothing else.

Kate Haveles

Project Perpetual’s auction to benefit The United Nations Foundation’s Shot@Life campaign will be held Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014, featuring exclusive works by Jeff Koons. 

Image Captions: 

Gazing Ball (Charity), 2014, plaster and glass, 70 x 77 5/8 x 40 3/16 inches [177.8 x 197.2 x 102.1 cm]. © Jeff Koons

Pablo Picasso, Spanish, 1881 - 1973, La Soupe, ca. 1902, oil on canvas, 38.5 x 46.0 cm. Gift of Margaret Dunlap Crang, 1983. #83/316 © Sucession Pablo PICASSO/ PICASSO administration/ SODRAC (Montreal) 2003. Image courtesy the Art Gallery of Toronto. 

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